Thursday, July 31, 2008

Do you need that?

I’m not trying to talk myself out of a job here but do you really need that? It’s a question that you should ask yourself.

I know it’s exciting to think about adding space to your home. Many have dreams of a breakfast room that projects into the backyard sanctuary that they love so much or a home office with a separate entry for clients. You should think twice though before committing to an addition to your home. Maybe it’s the right thing to do. Or maybe there is a better way.

Maybe reconfiguring or changing the way that you use some of the existing spaces within your home is a better approach to your home improvement needs. Often times there are under-utilized rooms that can be re-assigned or opened up and combined with another space to create that new kitchen or office. Many times this approach can cost less than the addition that you had your heart set on. Working with a
Design Professional is a smart investment here. Your favorite Architect can help you analyze the way that you live in your home and talk to you about the feasibility of reconfiguring versus adding on.

Although common wisdom says more square footage equals more resale value, consider the here and now. You are certainly aware of the struggling housing market and falling home prices. And, if you are truly dreaming of a beautiful addition, you obviously plan to stay in your home long enough to enjoy it.
Sarah Susanka, author of the “Not So Big” series of books, teaches that a well designed and efficiently used home doesn’t have to be “Big.” As you work with your designer, remember that there are probably hidden spaces under the stairs, behind attic knee walls and in abandoned chases that can be creatively converted into any number uses.

Before you go to the bank for the home equity loan that you need to finance the new conservatory, try thinking “Not So Big.” You may save yourself some money and end up with a more enjoyable home in the process.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Unsustainably Green

A few weeks ago, I connected with author and activist April Langschied. She writes under the pen name of A Brewster Smythe and is the Founder of the Waynedale Green Alliance. The WGA, like the Irvington Green Initiative that I work with, is a grassroots organization that seeks to better our communities by involving our friends and neighbors in efforts to sustain and improve our economy and environment.

Since we share many similar interests and goals, April asked if I'd be willing to answer a few interview questions for the numerous outlets that she writes for. By the time we were done, we'd covered the Green Movement and probed the differences between "green" and "sustainable." She's published a portion of that interview on the WGA website and there will be more to come. An excerpt follows.

"Jeff Echols: "Don't Mistake the Difference Between 'Green' and 'Sustainable Living"

Jeff Echols works with the Irvington Green Initiative, a segment of the Irvington Development Project. He is from Atlanta, GA, but spent most of his life in the Chicago area. Echols graduated from Ball State University's College of Architecture and Planning. He and his wife moved to Irvington in Indianapolis 13 years ago and have been making a difference since. Here is a question and answer session I had with Jeff. Please note his contrasting of 'green' and 'sustainable' terms.

Jeff Echols
I work for HAUS – The Architecture Studio ( and WERK - Construction Managers ( (sister companies). HAUS is a collaborative architectural studio leading the design + construction process to realize unique, creative and significant architecture, interiors and sites. WERK is an Architect-Led construction firm delivering integrated Design + Build services to protect our clients’ investment in design. In short, through HAUS and WERK we provide complete design and construction services to our clients for a diverse list of project types.

I also run Renovation Resources (, an independent consultancy that provides Homeowners with the most important resources necessary to have a successful home renovation. Through Renovation Resources I also blog ( about a variety of renovation related topics in an effort to educate, inspire, inform and motivate homeowners wherever they are in the Renovation process.

I work with the Irvington Green Initiative, in an effort to implement a vision of a sustainable, historic, urban neighborhood in Indianapolis.
I’m on the Builders Association of Greater Indianapolis Green Building Committee (

ABS) What sparked your interest in the ‘green movement’? And do you see it as a movement?

Jeff) Yes, I think that you’d have to say that “green” as we talk about it is a movement. There are a couple of points though that I think a majority of people miss when it comes to the topic of “green.”
The first is the distinction between and relationship between “green” and “sustainable.” Many people, myself included sometimes, use the two terms interchangeably. But, especially the way we talk about it today, there is a difference. I read an article recently that explained it pretty well. The author took the approach of looking at products; what products are “green” and are they also “sustainable?” The example that I liked was the iPod. I love my iPod. Is it a green product? In theory, it reduces the number of CD’s manufactured, packaged, boxed up, shipped, sold in big box stores, etc. I’d say yes, it is a green product. Is it a sustainable product? It is manufactured in a region that is famous for horrific environmental standards, under who knows what kind of labor practices, of materials that are so noxious that many cannot even be recycled. I’d say that the iPod is definitely not a sustainable product.

The second point that I think many people don’t have a good handle on is related to the “green” and “sustainable” discussion. Although many “green products” are very new and many more are coming into the market place every day, “sustainable” architecture and building is not new at all. In fact, sustainable building practices are the oldest, most natural forms of construction. It may seem counter intuitive but in a very real way, the “green movement” is more of a correction, to use a financial market term, or coming back to our senses than some great breakthrough.

But this line of thinking has some major implications. We have to understand that as we design and build our new green homes, offices, schools, churches, etc. that just by using bamboo flooring and tankless water heaters we are not necessarily producing projects which are sustainable.
Most good practitioners of “green” or “sustainable” design and building understand that there is a holistic approach that must be taken. You cannot address energy efficiency and create a completely “tight” building envelope without also addressing indoor air quality. If you do, you’ll end up with a very “sick” building not to mention its occupants. In a similar vein, there are a number of builders in our market and others that are building homes that they are heavily marketing as being “green.” These are, for the most part, well-built projects with many of the latest, most advanced “green” technologies and products available. They are also monstrous, million-dollar estates. If these homes are truly “green” are they also sustainable? I would argue “no.” Ideas such as those presented by Sarah Susanka in her “Not So Big House” series of writings are just as much a part of the equation as spray foam insulation.

The bottom line for me is that sustainability, by its very definition is a necessity. I am intensely interested in designing and building sustainably because the starting point for truly green and sustainable projects is good design and planning.

Jeff Echols full interview will be seen at Associated Content and American Chronicle. For more information about Jeff Echols please contact A Brewster Smythe at Email

There will also be a separate article with stark concentration on the differences between 'green' and 'sustainable' living."

Friday, July 11, 2008

This Old Green House

I recently did an interview with a journalist that asked me what the difference between “greening” a historic home versus “greening” any other existing home was. Interesting question. What do you think the answer is? I thought I accurately summed up the answer by saying “nothing and everything.”

Judging by the silence from across the table, my point wasn’t explicitly clear. Perhaps it was time to elaborate. In most cases as long as you’re not receiving any historic tax credits or grant money, “greening” the interior of your historic home is really no different from any other home.

You should obviously keep the historic nature of your property in mind and work with a qualified
design professional to develop quality construction drawings and a well thought out renovation strategy. But in terms of green products, all of the same rules apply. If your water heater is in need of replacement consider going tankless. Use low or no VOC paints, stains and sealants. An energy audit and thermoscan will help you pinpoint exactly where and how your home should be sealed up and insulated.

The possibilities are endless but remember that when it comes to replacement, first ask yourself if it really needs to be replaced. Replacing your 5-year-old, inefficient, beast-of-a-washing machine, that still works just fine, with the most efficient, water and resource saving model is not really green.

The exterior of your historic home may be a different story though. If you are in a Historic District, you’d be wise to check with your local building department before contemplating any significant changes, green or not. There may be regulations on materials that you use and where you can and cannot place things like solar panels or wind turbines. These rules will vary by jurisdiction but many Preservationists take the stance that
“the greenest building is one that is already built.” The charge for many organizations such as the Indianapolis Historic Preservation Commission (IHPC) is to preserve the character and value of the Historic properties in their jurisdiction. Often this means that the overall aesthetics of your original windows, wood siding and the like hold more value than your desire to install energy efficient products or alternative energy solutions.

But before we vilify Preservation groups in the name of green, remember that replacing your old, leaky windows without insulating your walls and sealing joints and penetrations is an expensive way to not accomplish much. And, many times, if you can install your alternative energy equipment somewhere that it cannot be seen from the street Preservation Commission staffers are more likely to be open to approving your request.

In the mean time, work to capitalize on the natural efficiencies that many older structures were inherently designed with. If your windows and doors are placed in such a way that you can gain the benefit of cross ventilation in the summer or the warmth of the sun in the winter, cash in by reducing your use of your heating and air conditioning.

So back to the question; what is the difference between “greening” a historic home versus “greening” any other existing home? It turns out that I was wrong. The answer is actually “it depends.”